In the beginning of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, we find a humorous exchange between the town beggar and a rich merchant:
"Alms for the poor, alms for the poor," says the beggar. He suddenly stops and looks in disbelief at the coin just handed him.
"Half a kopek?," he calls out. "Last week you gave me a whole kopek!"
"I'm sorry, I had a bad week," replies the merchant.
"You had a bad week, so I have to suffer?"
This interaction highlights a trait that is all too common: people will give tzedakah (charity) and act righteously when things are going well for them, but when their fortunes vanish, so do their good deeds.
In this week's Torah reading of Vayakhel, Moses commanded the Jews to contribute materials for the building of the Tabernacle. The Jews responded with such energy that Moses soon had more than enough material and he had to tell the people to cease. The people dutifully complied, as the Torah records, "And the people were restrained from bringing" (Exodus 36:6).
The Baal HaTurim, a commentator from the 13th and 14th centuries, explains that the word "Vayikaleih -- and they were restrained," appears only twice in the Torah. The other occurrence in the Torah is in Parshat Noach where it says, "and the rain from heaven was restrained" (Genesis 8:2).
The Baal HaTurim says that this connection reminds us that when God rains down His blessings, people increase their level of tzedakah. But when the rain stops, so does their generosity.
The sages teach that when a person gives tzedakah and uses his or her money wisely, God sees that the person can be trusted with money and God rewards him or her financially. This is especially true if a person gives tzedakah all the time, not just when it is convenient.
We find ourselves on this Shabbat halfway between the festivals of Purim and Passover. In two weeks we will celebrate Passover, a festival during which God revealed Himself through miracles and through the gifts He gave us in the desert. Two weeks ago we celebrated Purim, a festival on which God was hidden and His gifts to us were restricted. The lesson for us is that we must give tzedakah all the time, when God bestows blessings on us, when He doesn't, and all the times in between.
This column is dedicated in memory of Dan Miller.
Michael Gros, an alumnus of Emory University, writes from Israel, where he learns at Yeshiva Marbeh Torah.